The (science) fiction of human rights

At first glance, human rights are nothing like science fiction. Reports, campaigns and litigation address the very real world of wars and authoritarianism, social inequality, polarizing technologies, ecological collapse and other existential challenges to human rights. Thus fiction, and even more so science fiction, are often perceived as tastes outside the profession, relegated to readings or to evening or weekend films.

I counted myself among the indifferent to science fiction. That was before I read Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel, The Ministry of the Future. Robinson’s 2020 novel about the future of climate change has gotten the attention it deserves: some have called it the most important book of 2021 while many others have debated the plethora of scenarios, risks and solutions he projects on global warming over the next three decades.

To add to the praise, I believe the novel is indispensable for imagining the future of human rights on a glowing planet, which is also why I don’t want to spoil its reading with a hasty summary. (A good review can be found here). My intention is to analyze why this type of science fiction resonates with a wide audience and how it can enrich the reflection and practice of human rights.

In a recent interview, Robinson gives a valuable clue. What does science fiction do is deploy a double vision? “Think about the glasses you wear for a 3D movie,” says Robinson. “These special glasses have one lens showing you one thing and the other lens showing you another, slightly different thing. And your brain creates a 3D view from those. So a science fiction lens is a real attempt to imagine a possible future.The other lens is a metaphor for the way things are right now.

The book skilfully deploys this dual perspective. It begins almost in the present, with the harrowing scenes of an extremely humid heat wave that kills 20 million people in India in 2025. And it ends around 2050, when humanity finally manages to reduce the gas emissions that warm the Earth. The chapters oscillate between the short and the medium term, according to the pitfalls that humans and the planet take during this period. Fires, droughts, hurricanes, mass migrations, melting poles and economic crises alternate with unprecedented actions against global warming, from a new global currency that rewards emission reductions to new environmental, peaceful and violent movements, in passing through large ecological corridors that preserve endangered species, and successful and unsuccessful geo-engineering projects.

Therein lies the usefulness of science fiction. In the area of ​​human rights, I believe it makes three fundamental contributions. The first is to serve as an antidote to pessimism and despair. As the future seems more uncertain than ever – that of democracy, peace and the planet itself – we need stories that help us imagine and anticipate other possible scenarios. While the challenges to human rights are multiplying and it is difficult to see solutions at the current crossroads, it is necessary to think of solutions rooted in a rich reading of the present and a creative and credible vision of the possibilities of the future.

A second advantage of this type of science fiction is to revitalize the utopian vocation of human rights. Against the undeniable evidence of many human inequalities, human rights offer a moral perspective where all people are equal in dignity and rights. Rights, as Amartya Sen wrote, fundamentally consist of this moral vision, defending them means swimming against the tide of facts. They therefore, by definition, have a counterfactual, even utopian vocation.

Believable scenarios today are probably not as optimistic as one might have imagined in other times. As Robinson said, to be utopian today is “to believe that we will prevent a cataclysm [climate] mass extinction within the next 30 years. It is also to believe that human rights can make a decisive contribution to this and other tasks, despite the anti-rights schemes of authoritarian governments, conservative movements and recalcitrant corporations. This is indicated, for example, by the renewed interest in international human rights and criminal justice institutions that has followed revelations of possible Russian war crimes in Ukraine. These may seem like aspirations from another era. But, along with other progressive projects, human rights are the “true utopias” that can help preserve peace and life on the planet.

The third contribution that I would like to highlight in Ministry for the Future is its pluralistic and experiential vision. What ultimately brings global warming under control is not a master solution – a new technology, a social movement, an international agreement – but a multitude of local and global initiatives, not only political but also economic, legal, religious and cultural.

These may seem like aspirations from another era. But, along with other progressive projects, human rights are the “true utopias” that can help preserve peace and life on the planet.

I am convinced that the future of human rights will be just as diverse and experimental. While NGOs and other organizations continue to play a vital role, much of the movement’s energy and solutions will come from a wide variety of actors and actions, from young people protesting in the streets and resisting the formation of organizations, indigenous peoples carrying out actions of resistance and collectives launching network campaigns.

If science fiction is fertile ground for human rights, so are the other fields that share this double outlook. Future studies has become a field and is used in multiple professions and disciplines. Afrofuturism, feminist and postcolonial science fiction, “solar punk” and other currents make some of the most relevant contributions and multiply the angles for imagining the future. Even professionals firmly rooted in the present, like journalists, are exploring new ways to research and write about emerging solutions to social dilemmas. The challenge is to become “short-term visionaries”, as the journalist Michael Pollan said: to be able to detect the symptoms of social change early, to analyze them judiciously, and to anticipate the futures (plural) that might emerge.

Imagining these futures is a condition for building them. When motifs of despair and dystopia abound, they will have to be sought in the least frequented places, starting with science fiction.

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About Donald P. Hooten

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